The LDS Salamander Letter Explained

In the mid-1980s, a letter supposedly dating back to the early 1800s rocked the foundations of the Mormon faith. According to the Los Angeles Times, the "discovery" of the letter had been made by Mark Hofmann, a young collector of antiquated documents. The so-called Salamander Letter had purportedly been written by a man named Martin Harris, who had financed the first printing of the Book of Mormon. In the letter, he told a friend something about the religion's founder, Joseph Smith, that was at odds with the church's orthodox teachings. According to Mormon beliefs, Smith found a third testament to the Bible – what became the Book of Mormon — on a hill in Manchester, New York, in 1823. An angel named Moroni told him where to find book made of golden plates, and he later "translated" the text using a seer stone to scribes on the other side of a curtain.

The Salamander Letter — published by the L.A. Times – claimed that Smith had also found a white salamander in the hole in which he found the golden plates, and that the salamander turned into a spirit that forced him to exhume his dead brother (for some unexplained reason). The letter also claims that he "found some giant silver specticles [sic]," which he used to translate the text. The letter scandalized some Mormons, who claimed it made their religion sound too magical, but others accepted it as canonical.

The Salamander Letter was pretty convincingly made

The Salamander Letter's authenticity had been confirmed by several well-respected experts, even the FBI, and despite some people's objections to shape-shifting salamanders being part of their religion, its contents were accepted by scholars and church elders alike. The Associated Press reported in 1985 that a pair of professors at Brigham Young University defended the letter at the Mormon History Association's annual meeting that year. Professor Ronald Walker chalked up the suspicion about the letter's authenticity to "a 20th century mindset that doesn't understand the foundations of folklore."

Also on board was Charles Hamilton, a document dealer and forgery expert from New York. The New York Times described Hamilton as "the nation's preeminent detector of forged documents." According to the Times, Hamilton knew Mark Hofmann personally and never would have expected the collector to have been a forger. He described Hofmann as "mild-mannered, a serious scholar of high caliber dedicated to his work." The Salamander Letter was written using ink and paper used in the 19th-century. For Hamilton and most other document experts, the letter seemed to be completely authentic.

After the shocking events of October 1985, however, Hamilton would find out that the impression he had of his former colleague was completely wrong. "He fooled me," Hamilton said. "He fooled everybody."

The explosive truth behind the Salamander Letter revealed

Although most people in the know seemed on board with the Salamander Letter's authenticity, George Throckmorton was not. He was the Utah attorney general's document expert, and a devout Mormon, but just because the ink and the paper were of the same kind used a century-and-a-half before, that did not conclusively prove to him that the letter was real. He and a non-Mormon expert — a partner he felt would increase the credibility of any analyses they did — got to work on the documents. Microscopic cracks in the ink of documents from Hofmann, which they didn't find in others known to be authentic, told them that the Salamander Letter and other documents Hofmann had sold to the Church of Latter-Day Saints were forgeries. Hofmann was in big trouble.

So in October 1985, Hofmann made three pipe bombs, with which he tried to eliminate those who would out him. He ended up killing two people, but his plan backfired on him when one of his own bombs went off in his car while he was in it, injuring but not killing him. Hofmann was found guilty of murder and theft by deception, and investigations found that he'd forged documents by such illustrious historical figures as Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, Jack London, and more. Hofmann was believed to have made more than $2 million selling forged historical documents in Utah and New York. He was sentenced to life in prison the following year.